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Opinion

Enthusiastʼs wild petting zoo

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September 30, 2011

“Christopher! Christopher!” said my nephew Samuel, age 12, who was on top of a riverbank pointing to the prairie grass where a beast was loitering.

A bison with half of its shaggy winter coat still clinging stood like a portrait. I joined my nephew about 40 feet away from this prairie bull and watched. We were in a bowl surrounded by hillocks of sage and crumbling sandstone with deep cracks from lack of moisture in the Roosevelt National Park. The park road loops in a circle around lookouts, prairie dog towns, valleys, canyons and the badlands. We were on a plain where a river tracked through with protection provided by parallel sandstone hills.

We inched forward with a deliberate pace, crunching the stale grass, until I held my hand to the side for Samuel to stop. He looked at us like a halibut, eyes to the side so we could see his whites. The same way my Yorktese dog Sophie does when she barks at you for attention and rears her butt in the air. For 15 minutes, the bull stood lazily looking around with the quickness of a sloth, and then laid down unafraid of our intentions. The night before, another bison walked 10 feet away from my car window with shifty eyes and a prowess that suggested a lord walking among his minions. I put down my every urge to walk calmly over and pet its dusty mange; and possibly sit on top of it. If I was so bold, Samuel would approach every animal with like disregard, no, I need to be the adult while holding down some resemblance of child-like wonder. We left the beast to his instincts and traipsed along the weaving riverbank called the Jones River Creek.

The creek was a sorry sight of sparsely placed bright yellow puddles, when we heard a rattling noise. I held out my hand again. Samuel followed behind my lead gliding slowly but methodically towards the rattle with my hand scraping the blades tips. It was a real life-and-death game of “hot and cold;” the frequency of the rattle increasing when I came closer and decreasing likewise. A few steps to the south and the rattling reached peak frequency when I spied a timber rattler coiled in a ball. The grass arched over like a doorway exposing a 5 foot coil. “Let’s mess with it, get a large stick.”

I do not know why I whispered, an indoor voice is hardly needed when dealing with a venom tongue. Obtaining a stick is a difficult task in this treeless prairie; luckily enough, there was a grove of bushes that is no doubt under the spell of the putrid water. Nonetheless, he was back in two shakes with a 4 foot stick. I did not want to hurt the snake, just get in his bubble. I tried perching the stick underneath his curl of scales to lift it up for a better look-see. Nothing going, a larger stick is required, I rushed out to a crumbling tree near the bushes with the bison a stone’s throw away. I grabbed a weathered 10 foot stick with many forks and limbs.

The snake was not backing down, but I know snakes loathe biting random objects if they can help it. The venom takes at least a day if not more to restore. Like a shovel, I got a good hold under the snake’s scales and slung the snake in all its flailing confusion over 50 feet away and least 20 in the air. Whilst in the air it let out hisses like steam forcing its way through a pinhole in a chimney. We threw high fives, laughing in a jocular fashion. We clearly did not care too much about the policies the park has for its animals. Next up was the prairie dog petting zoo, whoops; I mean the wild prairie dog town.

Christopher Pagels is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.